Where the ‘surrender caucus’ is coming from

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Journalists have put much effort into understanding the method to the madness behind the “defund ObamaCare” strategy. Over at the New York Times, for example, Ross Douthat explains that “to many conservatives, the right has never come remotely close to getting what it actually wants, whether in the Reagan era or the Gingrich years or now the age of the Tea Party — because what it wants is an actually smaller government, as opposed to one that just grows somewhat more slowly than liberals and the left would like.” Meanwhile, McKay Coppins notes that the elected officials who pushed this strategy were simply reflecting the wishes of their constituents — doing what we elected them to do.

Even if we disagree with the strategy for achieving our mutual goals, I think we can all appreciate the sense of frustration.

But while it’s important to understand the philosophy driving the defund argument, my guess is that the counter argument isn’t completely understood, either. At least, many of the tea party folks probably don’t fully appreciate the legitimate concerns. (No, opponents of the defund strategy aren’t pansies worried about offending their elite friends at cocktail parties.)

I don’t claim to speak for others, but here are three bit reasons (not counting petty, personal slights) why many conservatives opposed this strategy. (Note: The first reason is obvious. But I suspect the others are less so.):

1. They knew it wouldn’t work, and fear the fallout will further harm the Republican brand. This only matters if you care about winning the U.S. Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016. (In fact, one could argue that if you really want to get rid of ObamaCare, the defund strategy was harmful to that cause.)

2. Wrong time/leverage. There are several reasons why many conservatives believe using a government shutdown or the debt ceiling as leverage is inappropriate:

a). The stakes are high, and the potential victims aren’t your adversaries, but rather, the American people.

b). An acceptance that the optics are bad. Republicans will almost always be blamed because of liberal media. And there’s also the fact that this reinforces stereotypes about the GOP being the “anti-government” party.

c). Fair or not, this risks looking like nullification and a breakdown of the rule of law.

3. Lasting change. Let’s assume a best-case scenario: Republicans resort to procedural methods to gum up the works, and are successful in extracting some sort of compromise. They don’t defund or repeal ObamaCare, of course (we’ve always known that was impossible), but let’s say they get something else. Even in this scenario, the victory is probably ephemeral.

There is a maxim attributed to Margaret Thatcher, which says, “First we win the argument, then we win the vote.” But in using procedural methods, Republicans would be short-circuiting this process. They will have neither won the argument, nor the vote.

Wouldn’t it be better to elect solid conservatives who then embark on a long-term strategy to persuade the American public to actually support conservative public policy ideas (such as entitlement reform, etc.)?

And isn’t the assumption that this cannot be done — that we cannot legitimately and proactively bring about positive change (without resorting to procedural gimmicks) a form of defeatism, or, daresay, surrender?

Matt K. Lewis